Morsi role at Syria rally seen as tipping point for Egypt army
Head of state had attended rally with hardline Islamists calling for holy war in war-torn neighbour
Protesters opposing Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi on a Cairo bridge today during a protest demanding that he resign. Photograph: Suhaib Salem/Reuters
Army concern about the way President Mohamed Morsi was governing Egypt reached tipping point when the head of state attended a rally packed with hardline fellow Islamists calling for holy war in Syria, military sources have said.
At the June 15th rally, Sunni Muslim clerics used the word “infidels” to denounce both the Shias fighting to protect Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the non-Islamists that oppose Mr Morsi at home.
Mr Morsi himself called for foreign intervention in Syria against Mr Assad, leading to a veiled rebuke from the army, which issued an apparently bland but sharp-edged statement the next day stressing that its only role was guarding Egypt’s borders.
“The armed forces were very alarmed by the Syrian conference at a time the state was going through a major political crisis,” said one officer, whose comments reflected remarks made privately by other army staff. He was speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to talk to the media.
The controversy surrounding the Syria conference pointed to a crippling flaw in the Morsi presidency: though the constitution names Mr Morsi as supreme commander of the armed forces, the military remains master of its own destiny and a rival source of authority to the country’s first freely elected head of state.
The army’s dramatic ultimatum demanding Mr Morsi and other politicians settle their differences by tomorrow afternoon caught the presidency completely off guard. Triggered by mass protests against Mr Morsi’s rule, it amounted to a soft coup by a military that has been a major recipient of US aid since the 1970s, when Egypt made peace with neighbouring Israel.
The army has cited the need to avoid bloodshed as its main motivation. It is also worried by other major problems facing Egypt, including an economic crisis that has wiped out more than a tenth of the value of the currency this year, making it harder for the state to import fuel and food.
Speaking on the eve of the protests, the president had dismissed the idea that the army would take control again.
If Mr Morsi was aware of irritation in the army, he chose to ignore it, believing his mandate as Egypt’s democratically elected leader gave him licence to make policy the way elected leaders do elsewhere in the world.
For the army, the Syria rally had crossed “a national security red line” by encouraging Egyptians to fight abroad, risking creating a new generation of jihadists, said Yasser El-Shimy, analyst with the International Crisis Group.
At the heart of the military’s concern is the history of militant Islam in Egypt, homeland of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri. The military source condemned recent remarks made by “retired terrorists” allied to Mr Morsi, who has deepened his ties with the once-armed group al-Gamaa al-Islamiya.